This article was found in the April 1952 issue of Progress, the monthly magazine of the Romford Congregational Church
Letters from an Uncle to his Niece and Nephew
Dear Jack and Betty,
It is pleasing to know that you really enjoy my monthly "essay". That certainly encourages me to continue. I did not realise when I started what a labour it was going to be. However, it is a labour of love - so here goes for another instalment.
You will recollect that in my previous letter we reached the Reformation. We now come to that period of history known to us in England as the Tudor Period.
As you know it was Henry VIII who finally broke the power of Rome in this country, although his action in doing so was far more political than spiritual, but even if he had not done so most historians agree that an English Reformation would have occurred. English men and women were reading the Bible for themselves. They were discovering the simple faith of the early Apostolic Churches and were comparing them with the pomp and ceremonies of Rome. Martin Luther was proclaiming to the German peoples that the Bible was supreme over the Cardinal and Pope and that men did not need a priest to give them pardon and absolution for their sins.
During the reign of Edward VI many Protestant exiles from the Continent found refuge in this country, but on his death and with the accession of Mary to the throne bitter persecution broke out and leading Protestants in England had to find refuge in Continental cities. Here they came under the influence of Calvin and lived in such cities as Geneva, Frankfort, Strasbourg and Basel. It was in Frankfort that a significant dispute broke out. Many of the exiles wanted to follow the more austere worship of Calvin in Geneva. The dispute was really one between the relative powers of the Minister and Congregation. It lasted a long time and it contained the germs of Episcopacy, Presbyterianism, and Independency amongst the Protestants themselves. It is only of interest because it foreshadowed the struggle that was shortly transferred to English Churches in the reign of Elizabeth.
On the death of Mary in 1558 and the succession to the throne of Elizabeth, a Protestant, most of the exiles on the Continent returned to England and loud was their demand for the elimination in English Churches of all forms of Popery and the establishment of the English Church on the lines of Frankfort and Geneva. And now began a long and bitter struggle over the future form which worship was to take in this country. Although recognition of the Pope had ceased the Church retained many of its Roman practices and to the bitter disappointment of the exiles Elizabeth refused to alter them. The Act of Uniformity in 1559 restored the Prayer Book. The Act of Supremacy made the Queen the supreme head of the Church. The exiles used to the simple and austere worship of the Reformed Continental Churches were not satisfied with the English variety with so many rites and ceremonies associated with the Roman Church. Here was really born Puritanism - the demand for purity of worship.
The Queen, however, was determined to have uniformity and in 1566 the Puritan clergy in London were given the option of conforming forthwith or getting out. Most of them gave in but a minority refused and were suspended from their livings. The result of all this was to split the Puritan movement into three groups. This split was very important to us as Congregationalists. The three groups were:
(1) Those who conformed but still hoped to influence the State Church away from its Roman practices, i.e. to purify it internally. They were probably the forerunners of the present day low churchmen as distinct from the High Church and Anglo-Catholics.
(2) This group also remained in the State Church, but tried to go even further than the first group. Not only did they wish to purify it but to change its form of government from Episcopacy to Presbyterianism.
(3) This group was called the Separatists. Bitterly disappointed at the failure of the State Church to purge all the "offensive habits and ceremonies" they declined to use even the Book of Common Prayer. They refused to obey the law and conform with the State Church and they refused to acknowledge the Queen's or the State's authority in spiritual matters. They took the perilous and yet heroic path of setting up their own Churches to worship in their own way.
These Separatists were our Congregational forefathers and of them I will tell you more next month.